The history of the MOBA genre is one of mods and iteration. Its most popular and still-standing games today are the result of multiple reimaginings and tweaks to skirt copyright issues. Now, there’s one more absurd step to the story: the makers of Auto Chess are making a MOBA. An Auto Chess MOBA is a game based off a game, based off a mod of a game, that’s in turn based off a mod of a game.
Announced on Jan. 8, publisher Dragonest announced that it would be developing a new MOBA game based on its game Auto Chess. On its face, that’s a pretty straightforward story. Go one step further and ask “what’s Auto Chess,” and now we’re spiraling down the rabbit hole.
Take things back to StarCraft and the fervent modding scene surrounding both it and the expansion Brood War, and you’ll find a game type called Aeon of Strife. It was a fairly straightforward game: pick a character, attack the enemy base, destroy it to win. Units would auto-spawn in designated “lanes,” and it sort of imitated a larger battle, where heroes on the field were fighting and destroying to build up personal resources, eventually becoming powerful enough to destroy the enemy team.
Another Blizzard game, Warcraft 3, had a similarly fervent modding scene, and here the Aeon of Strife concept would be moulded into a more recognisable comparison to what MOBAs are today: Defence of the Ancients, or DotA. DotA gradually dominated the custom game scene, thanks to a roster of heroes with items, special abilities, and surprising depth. It was hard to find a game of Life of a Peasant or Trolls v. Elves amid the flood of DotA.
Like all popular genres, imitators soon followed. Riot Games established League of Legends, the enigmatic developer IceFrog went to Valve to kick up Dota 2, and Blizzard tussled with Valve over the naming of Dota, eventually creating its own all-star MOBA Heroes of the Storm. There were many, many other MOBAs too, but those were the most prominent and most relevant to what came next.
While the Blizzard games had inspired the modding thus far, Valve’s own custom games in Dota 2 birthed a new genre through a mod called “Dota Auto Chess.” Rather than charging down lanes and fighting for gold, players placed units on a grid and watched their armies fight others, combining them in a manner similar to poker. It exploded in popularity, and soon, others were looking to create their own version of what was being called “autobattlers.”
Riot Games came in hot with Teamfight Tactics, Valve developed its own version called Dota Underlords, and Blizzard grafted an autobattler-alike mode onto Hearthstone. The original studio that made Dota Auto Chess, Drodo Studio, was now left to create its own standalone version, only without any of the assets from Dota 2 — and thus it made Auto Chess.
Now, Auto Chess is getting a MOBA with a day-night cycle and destructible terrain. Even looking at the images of its hero lineup, I’m noticing characters that are definitely rough offshoots of Tusk, Slardar, and Mirana. But then Slardar is just a rough offshoot of a Naga from Warcraft, and even when I play Dota 2 today, I sometimes call Mirana “POTM,” or Priestess of the Moon, a Warcraft name.
The endless spiral down of concepts from StarCraft, and perhaps more relevantly Warcraft, is fascinating to me. Some of Warcraft’s archetypes are fairly common in fantasy, like the frost mage or giant tree guardian, but now they’ve dripped down through multiple filters, avoiding copyright issues and intellectual property battles.
MOBAs aren’t wholly unique in this regard; turn to the FPS genre and you can trace the lineage of Valorant down through Counter-Strike and Half-Life, or the idea of a Ryu-style character throughout the years of various fighting games. Mods and iteration are how competitive games evolve, and they’ve resulted in some pretty spectacular results. (I have to believe that, or else all these hours of Dota 2 were for nothing.)
Still, I’m really curious to actually play the Auto Chess MOBA. How familiar will it feel? Where will certain characters remind me of their Dota counterparts, and where will they break from the mould? If I have one hope, it’s that it will have mod support that will somehow generate a new genre craze, dragging the rabbit hole that started with a simple mod decades ago even deeper.